What future for France in Europe after the elections?

On April 23 France will celebrate presidential elections, which are crucial not only for France itself but also for the European Union’s stability. Candidates are 11 in total, but the most important are 5: Fillon, Hamon, Macron, Melenchon, Le Pen.

François Fillon is the Republican candidate for the center-right wing party, same as Sarkozy (which he defeated in the primaries). He was Prime Minister from 2007 to 2012 under President Sarkozy. He is currently involved in a scandal of alleged illicit public reimbursements addressed to his wife and children.

Benoit Hamon is the Socialist candidate of the center-left wing party, same as actual President François Hollande. He won the primaries against Prime Minister Valls. He was Minister of Education. He struggles to hold together his party and suffers the loss of popularity of Hollande.

Emmanuel Macron is the atypical candidate for this election, vaguely liberalist. He is not a member of parliament but a business banker. Being Hollande’s economic advisor, he was then promoted to Minister of Economy. He left the office to found a party of his own, and to stand for election.

Jean-Luc Melenchon is the far left wing party candidate. It was a member of Hollande’s Socialist Party but he left it in 2008 and ran alone at the 2012 election, finishing fourth. It has the support of the French Communist Party, and in general of all the forces of the left.

Marine Le Pen is the President of the National Front, the French nationalist party. In 2011 she succeeded his father as party leader. At the 2012 presidential elections she finished third after Hollande and Sarkozy. At the 2014 European hers is the most voted party in France.

The presidential elections in France enliven political debate not only at home but also in Europe, and are seen as a test case for the Union held. The reason is that France, as well as being a founding state, is one of the most advanced European countries and also the one who paid the highest price in terms of human lives due to the terrorism. The result of the European elections of 2014, with the victory of the National Front with a strong anti-euro propaganda, raises serious questions about what the French will choose the intimacy of the urn.

To help the French people to make a decision, the state broadcaster TF1 has invited the five candidates Monday, March 20 for a TV debate – a unique phenomenon in French history because the debate between the candidates is usually reserved for the challenge to the ballot – which It has been seen by over 10 million viewers. The issues addressed during the three hours of debate were the following: school, security, immigration, secular state, institutions, nuclear energy, economy, purchasing power, pensions, health, military and political terrorism. I’m going to briefly expose which are the ideas of the candidates and, as I am Italian, I will try to make a parallel with Italian politics and express my thoughts.

SCHOOL

Fillon proposes to anticipate primary school enrollment at the age of five years, to adopt uniforms and to make teachers work more hours, paying them better. Also Macron agrees to the idea of raising professors pay. Melenchon, instead of the first two speakers, focuses on the positive aspects of the French school, citing the fact that in France there are more engineers per thousand people than in the rest of Europe. In this regard, he aims to encourage technical schools, and  to set education free of charge for everyone. Le Pen considers the strengthening of teaching French a key point in order to develop a strong sense of identity and belonging to the state. She says that the school must be absolutely secular. Hamon highlights the problem of overcrowded classes and proposes a limit to the number of pupils per class. It also proposes to encourage the training of teachers.

The first thought I have is: how long the issue of education does not enter the Italian political debate? I know you are all thinking about the “Buona Scuola” reform by Renzi of the Gelmini reform . But it has been at least 2 elections terms that the education topic is silent in the political debate. Yet, each government feels in charge of reforming education. About this topic, French politics is way ahead of Italian one, at least during the campaign. I liked the constructive attitude of Melenchon, especially after the first two candidates were substantially blaming French education system. Le Pen seemed a bit embarrassed on the subject, certainly her campaign is focused on something else. With the final statements of Hamon I realized that the French problems on education are not so far from Italian ones (overcrowded classrooms, poorly paid teachers and not updated). Who knows that the reforms put in place by the next president on the education side would serve as a model for future education reforms in Italy.

SAFETY

Le Pen proposes the strengthening of the police forces and the construction of new prisons, together with a reform to ensure the certainty of punishment. Fillon proposes to lift the police by some office work to employ them in the field. He agreed with Le Pen on the certainty of punishment and the construction of new prisons, but fewer in number compared to what Le Pen proposed. Hamon proposes to restore the “proximity police” and so hire five hundred thousand new policemen and to raise the salary of the policemen who work in delicate areas. Melanchon shifts the focus on “finance police” and its strengthening to recover the money of tax evasion. Macron proposes to increase the number of employees of the police forces and to ease their work by making justice more fast and efficient.

On this issue I’ve seen some confused ideas. Surely the Le Pen was fierce, but in general they all proposed the same thing excepting for Melenchon that introduced the topic of “finance police”(in my opinion he made it just to play the outside-of-the-box speech). Increasing  the number of employees (and salaries9 of police forces seems to me like a packaged solution only good for propaganda. None of them spoke about the practical feasibility in terms of costs for the state. We also need to consider that France has a high public debt and some time ago had to ask the European Union for flexibility in order to respect the European parameters, which is why I’m very skepctic on the topic of spending public money. In Italy we have more or less the same problems of France, but unfortunately the issue of security in Italy comes out only when a thief breaks in a private house and gets killed by the owner. Sometimes policemen do protest about their lack of fund and equipment, but media usually speak about than for no longer than 3 days. Special attention to the issue by the Italian politicians is strongly recommended.

IMMIGRATION

Macron wants to strengthen the borders and have a maximum six months procedures for asylum requests instead of making them last for years as it is today. He hopes for an integrated European policy and cooperation with the countries of origin of immigrants. Fillon proposed to establish a maximum number of people to accommodate every year, apart from asylum seekers. Hamon wants to follow the German model of integration and thus provide jobs for refugees. Melenchon proposes to block trade agreements that impoverish the countries of origin of immigrants and to work for the cessation of conflicts. Le Pen wants to stop any type of immigration, both legal and illegal, and then close all the borders.

In one thing we are ahead of the French: in Italy the law already requires up to six months to accept or reject asylum requests. But I would not invite Macron in Italy to show how good we are because even in Italy too often asylum procedures come to last for two years. While not agreeing with Fillon’s proposal, I liked that he specified that asylum seekers are not included in his proposal. Hamon has in my opinion made a mistake to recall Germany as a good example because, nowadays, being in favour of whatever Merkel does is very unpopular. Melenchon seemed to me totally up the clouds because, after a very specific question, he replied that the way to stop immigration is to stop the wars. Le Pen was absolutely coherent with her party propaganda. She wants all kind of immigration to stop and has no intentions of changing her mind.

SECULARITY

To Macron secularism is crucial because it protects both believers and non-believers. Melenchon stresses that anyone who covers public office should not express religious judgments. Hamon says as Macron that secularism is a guarantee. Le Pen emphasizes the role of secularism and proposes the fight against communalism which, according to her, prevents citizens to feel truly free. Fillon emphasizes the role of secularism as a guarantee that religion does not endanger the state.

Hearing the discussion on secularism I felt a little uncomfortable. We Italians are not used to talk about secularism perhaps because, after the Lateran Pacts of ’29, we have surrendered to this influence of the Church in our society. Actually, the question was asked in order to bring the candidates to talk about the relationship between France and Islam. They have all dribbled the question, excepting for Le Pen who spoke instead of another of his key points of her campaign: the fight against communalism and multiculturalism, which she says is gradually destroying the society we live in.

INSTITUTIONS

Melenchon proposes to change the Constitution, and so give birth to the Sixth Republic with the aim to reduce the president’s powers. He also proposes to anticipate the vote at 16 years old and insert into the Constitution an article about environmental safeguard. Le Pen also proposes to amend the Constitution by lowering the number of deputies and senators to reduce the cost of politics. She also proposes to abolish the regional councils and give more power to the municipalities that are closer to the needs of citizens. Hamon calls for a renewal that goes in the direction of greater autonomy from the finance lobbies and the large industrial groups. Macron captures the reference to his past as a banker and attacks politicians glued to their seats. Fillon said that an institutional renewal is not among its priorities.

French politicians also want their institutional renewal. Given the previous experience in the UK and Italy, the advice that I can give is not to hold a referendum. I appreciated the honesty of Fillon in stating that institutional reform are not needed today.

TRANSPARENCY

Hamon aims to regulate the activities of lobbyists in order to clarify their position. Fillon proposed to set up a parliamentary committee on transparency. Macron proposes that the salaries of politicians and state officials are published and, and also to create a strong transparency legislation. Melenchon proposes the ineligibility for life and other strong measures for those who break the laws, especially if they hold public office. Le Pen attacked Macron for his past as a banker, considering him unsuitable for the office of President of the Republic.

I think this theme has been chosen in order to embarrass Fillon. In any case all the candidates seemed unconfortable and gave quite vague answers. Maybe they did not expect this question and were not prepared. In the absence of ready-made answers, the took the chance to attack each other. Like the previous issue about institutions, I do not think that the future of France depends on this topic. In Italy it is thanks to the 5 Star Movement if the issue is back into the political debate, and it must be said that other political forces are struggling to face the debate.

NUCLEAR ENERGY

Hamon hopes for the end of nuclear energy in order to reduce the import of uranium and therefore dependence on foreign countries. Fillon does not want to phase out nuclear power and offers a smooth transition, meanwhile encouraging the development of renewable energies. Macron wants to reduce dependence on nuclear power without deleting it altogether. He also wants to eliminate tax incentives for those who buy a diesel engine car. He proposes to invest on energy efficiency of buildings. Le Pen says it is important to put economic feasibility first, so interventions must first be affordable and not dictated by green ideologies. French agriculture should be encouraged to reduce the import of products from abroad. Melenchon says he wants to shut down all nuclear power plants.

On this topic nearly all agree on reducing nuclear commitment to accelerate the transition to renewable energy, although each candidate has different timing in mind. I appreciated the intervention of Macron because in the near future Europe will invest a big amount of money in energy efficient building renovation. He made a promise he can fulfill. In Italy nuclear power generation has a troubled history and no one would ever propose to build new plants, so such debate would cover more about how to reduce the import of energy and increasing the share of renewables.

ECONOMY

Fillon proposed, as a recipe to lift the economy, to increase the hours of work per week. Macron proposes to lower taxes for companies. Hamon proposes universal basic income and the recognition of mental disorders such as stress as a disease resulting from work. Melenchon proposes the reduction of working hours. Le Pen seeks to primarily benefit the French companies that employ French people.

On this issue I saw a lot of demagogy by all. Perhaps the one that offers the most feasible recipe is Le Pen that seeks to benefit the French companies. The increase or decrease in working hours and lowering taxes for companies seem to me pointless measures and also very expensive. I think that from this point of view, the Italian and French politics are different because no Italian politician would dream of putting their hands in the amount of working hours.

PURCHASING POWER

Hamon gets back on the concept of universal basic income as a measure designed to increase the purchasing power of the French people. Fillon says that the basic income, though equal, is impossible to achieve because of the high public debt. Macron resumed its proposal to lower the corporate tax, and proposes the elimination of the tax on houses. Melenchon proposes a system of subsidiarity and stresses the concept that people must be paid whether they study or work. Le Pen proposes to ban advertising of loans, so that the saved advertising costs could be used to lower the interest.

This issue in my opinion is unnecessary, and in fact almost everyone used the same answers as the previous topic. Only Le Pen proposes something different but goes out of the topic dealing by addressing to a question of little impact. I imagine that in Italy the answers would be identical as the 5 Star Movement for what regards the basic income, and as the Democratic Party for what regards the proposition of subsidies and aid (like the 80 euro given by Renzi). We would probably also see the everlasting Berlusconi to promise, as Macron, the elimination of the tax on the first house, which is in Italy always promptly reintroduced by the next government, because they lack the financial backing. Bur maybe Macron is better than Berlusconi.

PENSIONS

Hamon aims to make it possible for workers to stay a few more years at work to increase the check, or retire early with a penalty. Melenchon proposes lowering the retirement age and points out that women and men should receive equal pay. Le Pen agrees with Melenchon. Fillon defends the reforms made and the raising of the retirement age. Macron proposes the creation of a system for degrees that may in the future enable young people to retire at a reasonable age.

Hot topic in Italy and in France, as even the French people have had to undergo a “Fornero pension reform”. Here the answers are cautious and weighted because everyone knows that the reform is untouchable. Only Melenchon dares to propose a reduction in the retirement age, perhaps because he is well aware that he is not among the favorites and he hopes to recover consent.

HEALTH

Hamon steps against pesticides and chemicals in food and points at them as one of the causes of allergies and diseases. He proposes a law on euthanasia and to reduce waiting time at hospitals for visits. Melenchon proposes the 100% reimbursement of medical expenses. Fillon wants to ease bureaucracy health and restore value to primary care doctors, giving them more features and a better pay. Macron wants to give more autonomy to hospitals and better pay for healthcare professionals. Le Pen proposes a insurance for those who, after a long period of illness, finds themselves having to be reinserted in society. She also highlights the issue of autism.

I totally agree with Hamon on pesticides and chemicals as well as the law on euthanasia. All other solutions proposed by candidates will increase public spending, and altogether with the other proposals for an increase in salary for teachers, police, tax reductions for businesses and elimination of the fee for the first house we realize that no one of them will ever be put into practice. Enough concrete proposal for Le Pen, but in my opinion she has a problem: she focuses on the problems of a specific category, not too large, and she does not care of the rest. The interest towards people with autism and to those recovering from a long illness is a good thing, but it is not enough. In Italy probably we would end up speaking about  medical malpractice and the increase of the amount of healthcare workers.

MILITARY POLICY

Hamon said that any military action must take place under the will of the United Nations. If the United States will fail to ensure the defense of Europe, then France will ensure security since it has one of the best armies in the continent. Le Pen proposes to increase military spending, while also creating jobs and technological development. Melenchon proposes to leave NATO and to foster cooperation in all war zones. Fillon said that was left too much room for Russia to handle the issue with Syria. Macron claims to be a strong pro-European that care about the independence and safety of France.

On this issue had emerged the differences among the candidates. They range from Hamon making a very realistic speech, then Le Pen who proposes an increase in military spending, then Melenchon that proposes the withdraw from OTAN, until you get to Fillon that admits that on the issue of Syria it has been given too much power to Russia. I appreciated the response of Macron that, in euroskepticism times, is deeply pro-European and at the same time reaffirms the independence of France, only possible if embedded in a European framework with a strong and stable European Union. In Italy there is no real debate on the military topic. Every now and then we talk about costs, but there are only few people that speak about an Italian military reinforcement (or maybe they are not listened to).

TERRORISM

Melenchon says that the real matrix of terrorism is not religious but economic insofar as it seeks to take possession of oil reserves. Hamon focuses on cooperation and assistance to the states where terrorists are coming from,and wants to strengthen the territorial control. Le Pen wants to regain control of France borders and create a list of organizations that are against the interests of France and the French people. Fillon proposed to send to jail those who have relations with Syria and shows to hate France. Macron stresses the importance of cooperation and proposes greater coordination of data available to the police in identifying people at risk of radicalisation.

The topic is very important but for some reason is treated last, when in France it is almost midnight. Melenchon takes it wide and investigates the origins of terrorism, Hamon seems more concrete and Macron gives almost the same answer, adding that it is important to keep an eye on people at risk of radicalization (same thing Fillon proposed). The Le Pen, who has invested a lot on this issue in the election campaign, offers what everyone expects. In Italy terrorist attacks did not happen yet, in my opinion because terrorism makes money also with disembarks and if Italy, as a result of terrorist attack, decided to block the arrival of migrants, terrorists would lack a large slice of earnings. As terrorism is not really a topic, the Italian political debate would address to immigration policies.

Jafar al-Saqili

NOTE: This is a translation of an original article in Italian. We are aware that the language or the syntax used are not always perfect, but we wanted to convey the message all the same. Hopefully you will appreciate it.
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